The Ramayana has all the ingredients of a robust, full-blooded adventure saga. A fast-paced plot with loads of action and crackling tension, compelling characters – kings, warriors, asuras, a wicked stepmother, strange animals, shape shifters, marauding monsters, and more – and lots of blood, gore, and battles thrown in to pump up the adrenaline…. Could any writer ask for more exciting elements to work with, especially given the strong emotional connection that millions of Indians have with the epic and its hero?
Maybe not, but then, there’s a catch. Most Indians have grown up hearing, over and over again, the story of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, who willingly goes into exile in the forest with his devoted brother Lakshmana and wife Sita, just so that his father can fulfil a promise he has made to one of his queens. Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the asura king of Lanka, and Rama’s quest to rescue her with the help of the mighty Hanuman, culminating in a fierce battle in which Rama triumphs and Ravana is slain has become an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage. And it is seen as an inspiring proof of the comforting axiom that good always triumphs over evil.
The story has been told and retold so many times that writers who think they have discovered an exciting new way to approach it are likely to find that someone else has already been there, done that, and more. Of course, there’s always the option of trying a new point of view… but the Ramayana has been explored from several perspectives already. For instance, that of Hanuman (Vikram Balagopal’s graphic novel Simian), Ravana (Vijayendra Mohanty’s Ravanayan), Sita (Samhita Arni’s Sita’s Ramayana and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues). And that’s only a sampling of what’s available. After all, over centuries, the epic has spread not only throughout India, but also crossed mountains and seas, and distant borders to wind its way into the cultures of Southeast Asia. So it is not surprising that there are several versions of the tale of this exemplary son, warrior, and king in various mediums, ranging from casual storytelling in one’s home to puppet shows, street plays, and dance dramas, not to mention a diverse range of murals and paintings, ballads and bhajans, movie extravaganzas and television serials.
Offhand I can think of three versions of the epic that have been hugely popular in India. Many who belong to an earlier generation were properly introduced to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, usually during their schooldays, through Rajaji’s comprehensive no-frills retelling of these two great epics. Later, with the dawning of the magical Amar Chitra Katha era, young readers were served easy-to-devour morsels of Indian mythology, including the Ramayana, in the form of affordable comics, which soon became runaway bestsellers. And then, along came Ramanand Sagar who brought the nation to a hushed standstill every Sunday morning in the mid-eighties with his televised version of the Ramayana featuring a somewhat chubby, well-fed Rama with not a hair out of place despite routinely battling monsters and asuras for the sake of upholding dharma. Streets actually emptied out as cars, scooters and cycles were abandoned and people milled around every available television set to share in the trials and triumphs of the Prince of Ayodhya!
Given the myriad adaptations of the Ramayana already available, do we really need another retelling of the epic? The team of Subhadra Sen Gupta and Tapas Guha could very well persuade you to answer “Yes”. Here’s the thing. Sen Gupta makes no attempt to force the readers’ attention with anything gimmicky or over the top. Instead, she reels them in with a lucid, straightforward retelling of the epic. Smart choice that. Moreover, her vivid narration is effortlessly replicated in Tapas Guha’s illustrations with their strong, clean lines. Particularly striking are the expressive faces that he conjures up, whether it is a dishevelled Sita in captivity in Lanka, huddling under a tree, or the vanar sena launching an attack against the enemy with tree trunks and boulders. Even the magical cow Nandini has a disdainful look on her face as the king’s soldiers try in vain to drag her away to the palace.
The fact boxes are a thoughtful value add. They blend in smoothly with the narrative, and not only bring us well-researched info bytes, but also some delightful trivia. Did you know, for instance, that Sita was famous for her cooking? Or that there is a temple called “Sita’s kitchen” where a rolling pin and chopping board are worshipped? Or that the kings of Thailand bear the title Ram? Also on offer are logical explanations for what could appear to be absurd or unbelievable. For instance, children always want to know whether the much-loved and revered Hanuman was actually a monkey. Not so, explains the author: “In Sanskrit, van means forest and nar is a man; so he is a man who lives in the forest.” Turning him into a supermonkey with fantastic powers was probably the result of poetic licence on Valmiki’s part, when he composed the epic. Similarly, she unearths a plausible answer to the question, “Did Ravan have ten heads?” by pointing out that he was a great warrior, scholar, king, musician, poet, and more. So the ten heads were merely the poet’s extravagant way of drawing attention to his many talents. That takes us to a feature of the book which has a special relevance today. Ravana and the asuras are not demonized en masse, as a community. For instance, when Ravana’s brother Vibhishana wishes to join Rama in his quest to rescue Sita, and right the wrong his brother has done, he is viewed with suspicion by many in Rama’s camp. But Hanuman tells Rama that: “…all rakshasas are not evil. When I was in Lanka, I saw many rakshasas who were good people.” Even Ravana is portrayed as a great king (which he was – it is said that all his subjects were happy, for he paid great attention to their welfare), but he also had fatal flaws, which proved to be his downfall.
Sen Gupta follows the original epic in that she does not paint the characters black or white or even grey. We have a whole spectrum of hues here, and that is what makes them come alive, whether it is Ravana or Rama, or even minor characters like the old woman Shabari, who lovingly feeds Rama the berries she has tasted to make sure they are sweet. Of course, Sita, the dutiful wife, with those rare flashes of spirit, and of rebellion too, is a perfect illustration of this. In the end, the shy young bride who cannot bear the thought of being parted from her husband evolves into a resolute woman who chooses to leave Rama and go back to her mother, the Earth, when he asks her for proof of her chastity once too often.
What evoked mixed feelings in me were the old storyteller and the gaggle of kids who occasionally trade questions and answers about the epic. Somehow, their conversations seem a bit too pat and contrived. And one feels like telling them to scat and let the gods and asuras and their faithful followers get back to doing their thing – fighting thunderous battles, uprooting mountains, leaping across oceans, or whatever. But then, the sutradar and his young friends do serve a purpose because they bring us dribbles of information about the epic. Anyway, they put in an appearance in three pages at the most at the beginning of each section. So whether you appreciate their banter or find it intrusive is not really important, for this story “about courage and endurance, duty, love and hate, laughter and tears” (to quote the blurb) is an enjoyable read.
By Veena Seshadri
RAMAYANA: THE ADVENTURES OF RAM
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Illustrator: Tapas Guha
Scholastic India, 2014
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction